Women’s History Month: Women Warfighters through our conflicts

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Women’s History Month: Women Warfighters through our conflicts

Just as I did last month with snippets of African-American war heroes, it seemed appropriate to do a similar type thing this month with famous women warriors.

And the most obvious place to start is with the Revolutionary War heroine known to history simply as “Molly Pitcher:

A heroine of the Revolutionary War, Molly Pitcher was the nickname of a woman said to have carried water to American soldiers during the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, before taking over for her husband on the battlefield after he was no longer able to fight. There’s no definitive proof about who Pitcher was—and there’s debate about whether she even existed at all—but most commonly she’s been identified as Mary Hays McCauley. Born in Pennsylvania in 1754 (or possibly 1744), Mary may have worked as a servant before marrying William Hays, of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During the war, Hays served as a gunner in the 4th Artillery of the Continental Army while Mary became part of the group of women, later referred to as camp followers, who traveled with the army and took on such duties as cooking, washing and caring for sick and wounded soldiers.

At the Battle of Monmouth, which took place on a sweltering summer day in Monmouth County, New Jersey, Continental forces under General George Washington faced off against British troops under General Henry Clinton. Mary brought water to the parched American troops until her husband collapsed, either from the heat or after being wounded, after which she supposedly took his place and helped operate cannon for the rest of the battle. A soldier who witnessed the action later wrote about in his diary, without referring to the woman involved by name: “While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat.”

Here’s a short but well done video about the battle of Monmouth:

The only female recipient of the Medal of Honor was Mary Edwards Walker; a civil war veteran,  abolitionist, women’s suffragist and surgeon who served with the Army of the Cumberland, and extensively with the 52nd Ohio Infantry where she was named the Regimental Surgeon.

She would be awarded the MOH on November 11, 1865, have it rescinded in 1917 along with over 900 others, and then restored by President Carter in 1977.  It reads:

Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made: It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her. Given under my hand in the city of Washington, D.C., this 11th day of November, A.D. 1865. Andrew Johnson, President.

“The History Guy” did a segment on Mary Walker that tells more of her background and story:

Grace Banker would serve in World War I as a chief operator of telephones in France, often at the front line, or not far from it.  She served with a group colloquially known as the “Hello Girls.”

By war's end, American military women had served stateside and overseas on the eastern and western war fronts. Over 230 bilingual civilian telephone operators organized and trained by AT&T took the same oath of allegiance as male soldiers. Dubbed the "Hello Girls," they maintained communications in 75 French localities, sometimes working under combat conditions.

And from the outset of World War I, long before American troops arrived on foreign soil, American women were “over there” volunteering with civilian organizations to provide nursing, transportation and other war relief services. Women aligned themselves with humanitarian organizations such as the American Red Cross, YMCA, Salvation Army and others to meet wartime needs.

World War I marked a new era in women's movement from the home and into the public sphere. Their call to service by the military establishment was hesitant, limited and unequal in treatment and benefits. Yet they went to war anyway. As the peace process unfolded and they were removed from wartime work, many remained in the public realm taking on new roles in the workplace and seeking higher education. Others resumed traditional places in the home.

Originally from New Jersey, Banker would be sent overseas as part of a team trained by ATT.  From Wiki:

Banker sailed with her team members from New Jersey on 6 March 1918, to take up the assignment as chief operator for First Army headquarters in Paris. After arriving with her team in England, the group set sail by ferry across the English Channel. However, bad weather, in the form of thick fog, prevented the ferry from reaching French shores, and it had to be anchored a few miles away to wait for the fog to lift. This location made the vessel an easy target for German bombing (at that time, one vessel out of four had suffered bombing), and the team members remained at full readiness to evacuate the vessel at short notice. The women's group stayed on deck in the open for forty-eight continuous hours. This situation did not dishearten Banker or her team members, and, as Banker later said: "What good sports girls were in that First Unit! They took everything in their stride. They were the pioneers." 

On arrival in Paris, Banker and her team were posted to the headquarters of the Advance Section in Chaumont sur Haute Marne, which was then the headquarters of General John J. Pershing. Five months later, Baker was asked to move to the war front, to the First Army headquarters at Ligny-en-Barrois, south of Saint-Mihiel. On 25 August 1918, she moved to the war front with only five operators helping her.  For this operation at Saint-Mihiel, Banker had to make a choice of the best operators for the job, she selected: Suzanne Prevot, Esther Fresnel, Helen Hill, Berthe Hunt, and Marie Lange. Equipped with gas masks and helmets, the women operated from trenches where the danger was real; despite this, those not chosen to go felt left out.

During offensive operations at Saint-Mihiel, though artillery bombing was in force, Banker and her team of operators manned the switchboards. When the First Army headquarters moved to Bar-le-Duc in September, Banker and her operators had to work in a place which was damaged extensively. They operated even under heavy bombing by German planes, but no team members were injured. They worked under severe weather conditions without heating, and their barracks leaked, and were later gutted, making conditions even harsher.

Following the Armistice of 11 November 1918, fighting ceased. Banker and her team were then ordered to return to Paris. In Paris, Banker was deputed initially to work at the temporary residence of President Woodrow Wilson. As she did not find this job exciting compared to the work at the war front, she accepted an offer to move to the Army of Occupation at Coblenz, Germany; while there she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. 

During World War II, female participation in the Armed Forces was making progress, but not as significant as many wanted.  Enter 2nd Lt Elsie Ott, who became not just a pioneer in air medical evacuations, but would be the first female recipient of the United States Air Medal:

Ott became an experimental test pilot for the first intercontinental aeromedical evacuation on January 17, 1943. Ott, five seriously ill patients, and a staff sergeant with medical technician experience and severe arthritis, flew for about 10,000 miles from Karachi, India to Washington, D.C.

At the time, Ott had about eight months of military experience, no flight experience, no transport preparation experience and was given short notice to prepare for the air evacuation flight.

Prior to her take off, Ott did not receive consultation from a flight surgeon on the types of supplies, medical care instructions or the selection of patients. On the morning of January 17, 1943, Ott and her crew flew from Karachi, India to the United States. It is also important to note that the flight only took six and a half days, and would have taken three months if transported by ground and ship instead.

Ott was responsible for the medical care of five casualties during the flight. Two patients were paralyzed from the waist down, one had tuberculosis, one had glaucoma and another patient had manic-depressive psychosis. She collected a bedpan, urinal, aspirin tablets, and other medical supplies during her flight preparations. She also received blankets, pillowcases, sheets, two Army cots and two mattresses.

Although I couldn’t find a great video of Elsie Ott, there is a very similar story that comes first hand from Nurse Ruth Miller (who served in the Eastern Theater) in this excellent video:

The nursing corps remained one of the few areas open to women during the Korean Conflict, and thus, Captain Viola McConnell found herself literally alone when the conflict began:

In July 1950, the Korean War began when the Communist North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel, an arbitrary separation of North and South Korea, and invaded the Republic of South Korea. Captain Viola B. McConnell was the only Army nurse on duty in Korea. When hostilities broke out, she escorted 643 evacuees from Seoul to Japan on a Norwegian freighter, the Rheinholt, which was designed to accommodate only 12 passengers. Forsaking her own well-being, she discarded her personal belongings in Korea in order to carry bandages and other first aid equipment for casualties.

CPT McConnell assessed priorities for care of sick evacuees and worked exhaustively with a makeshift medical team to ensure the sick and vulnerable were stable until they reached more definitive care. She also supervised the rationing of food and the maintenance of sanitation during the voyage. After the beleaguered vessel arrived at the 118th Station Hospital in southern Japan, she requested reassignment back to Korea. She returned to Taejon to care for and evacuate wounded soldiers of the 24th Infantry Division.

Because mobile and evacuation hospitals followed the troops and extremely fluid battle lines, Army nurses such as CPT McConnell often found themselves closer to the front than anticipated. The nurses were challenged to  improvise and function in a multitude of shelters, such as tents, barns, schoolhouses, and churches. Conditions were rudimentary – no running water, and earth floors with potbellied stoves for warmth and water heating. Patients’ beds were low folding cots, which entailed a great deal of uncomfortable bending or kneeling to tend patients.

Again during Vietnam, most women who would be awarded distinction served in the nursing corps, including 1Lt. Diane Carlson EvansIn an excellent and lengthy article in our American Legion Magazine in September of last year, our Editor, Jeff Stoffer discussed the life of this nurse from Minnesota who would become the driving force behind establishing a Vietnam Women's Memorial.

Four years [after being honored as a student by her local American Legion Post], during a rocket attack at an evacuation hospital near Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam, the same Diane Carlson, an Army nurse and first lieutenant, reaches into a crib and holds the trembling hand of a young girl severely burned by napalm. 

Soldiers have dived under their beds. IVs and other lines have been yanked out. The floor is slippery with blood. Carlson and a medic have thrown mattresses over those who cannot get onto the floor, to protect them from shrapnel. “Like in the jungle, you do what it takes to survive,” she recalls. “We are doing everything we can to protect them the best way that we can. But the little girl in the unit – we were caring for Montagnard and Vietnamese civilians with napalm burns and injuries incurred in the crossfires of the war – she came into our unit screaming in pain, and when we got hit, she started screaming again because it scared her like the night her village was bombed. I couldn’t throw a mattress on top of her because she was so badly burned. I went for cover under her crib, and I just held her hand. And she screamed herself to death.”

Another moment in vivid detail, as if it happened only yesterday. 

“That night, for me, was Vietnam. It was surreal ... like a bad hallucination. I was one lone nurse with one lone medic, and these patients all needed life-saving care. And we were all they got that night. It was our job to do whatever it took to save their lives.” […]

Carlson  and each of her fellow nurses, corpsmen and doctors treated thousands of troops and civilians in country. “We saw the results of war every day, in every patient, for 12 or 14 hours, whatever the length our shift might be. We went from one to the next to the next to the next to the next. Each one had a story.”

Injuries were often accompanied by burns. She treated ground grunts and dust-off crash survivors, civilians (including children) and officers. As quickly as possible, patients other than civilians were transferred from the evacuation hospital to the 6th Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay to recover if wounds were not so bad as to send them home.

Infections were a constant concern. “If you were wounded, the wounds were always considered dirty,” she says. “Vietnam was a dirty country. The enemy became very crafty. They would lace punji sticks with human feces. A soldier would step on it: instant injury and certain infection. Bone infections were sent home due to the long recovery period. DPCs – delayed primary closures. =Any soldier who went through this experienced excruciating pain. Our skilled medics irrigated the wound, packed the dressings, and on the third day, the surgeons could close the wound. Tons of antibiotics. So, now the wound is healing, and the antibiotics are working, and we take out the stitches and he goes back to his unit … or, he gets the million-dollar wound, and goes home.”

Since the first Gulf War, women have made great strides in being included in more front line operations, and none saw it as up close as Leigh Ann Hester whose Kentucky National Guard platoon of Military Police were ambushed in Iraq on 20 March 2005.

Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester of the 617th Military Police Company, a National Guard unit out of Richmond, Ky., received the Silver Star, along with two other members of her unit, for their actions during an enemy ambush on their convoy.

Hester's squad was shadowing a supply convoy March 20 when anti-Iraqi fighters ambushed the convoy. The squad moved to the side of the road, flanking the insurgents and cutting off their escape route. Hester led her team through the "kill zone" and into a flanking position, where she assaulted a trench line with grenades and M203 grenade-launcher rounds. She and Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, her squad leader, then cleared two trenches, at which time she killed three insurgents with her rifle.

When the fight was over, 27 insurgents were dead, six were wounded, and one was captured.

Hester, 23, who was born in Bowling Green, Ky., and later moved to Nashville, Tenn., said she was surprised when she heard she was being considered for the Silver Star.

"I'm honored to even be considered, much less awarded, the medal," she said.

Being the first female soldier since World War II to receive the medal is significant to Hester. But, she said, she doesn't dwell on the fact. "It really doesn't have anything to do with being a female," she said. "It's about the duties I performed that day as a soldier."

Although I loathe the use of the word “win” in reference to earning a Silver Star, this is nonetheless an excellent interview where you can hear Leigh Ann discuss what happened:

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.